Cotton Ball gets rolling: Bringing Egyptian-made cotton tees to life

Cotton Ball’s latest collection of tees and tanks. (Courtesy of Cotton Ball)

“What Cotton Ball stands for is a baseline, and your style is what dictates it,” says Zena Sallam, cofounder of the fashion brand that designs and manufactures basic tees and other products using Egyptian cotton.

“It is there to cater to anyone and anything – the punk, the preppy guy, the businessman, the teenager – they all look different but they have a Cotton Ball t-shirt in common,” she adds, describing the concept behind the business.

The idea of Cotton Ball came to cofounders Sallam and her husband, Ahmed Habib, during a visit to the United States, where they were surprised by the staggering cost of Egyptian cotton t-shirts. They shared a mutual frustration over not having a homegrown brand that makes simple, decent-quality cotton shirts at affordable prices.

Launched in 2012, Cotton Ball is a brand built on the idea of a wholesome basic apparel line. The couple decided to create a brand that exemplifies an everyday need and comfort item, offering a variety of basic tees in all colors, shapes and sizes.

We want to create a legacy for our kids, and that legacy is having an Egyptian brand present worldwide

Egyptian cotton linen, bed sheets and apparel have long been considered luxury items everywhere in the world. In the land where the so-called “white gold” actually grows, however, the resource has seen some rough times as exports dwindled, cultivation hit several snags in the past years, and local manufacturing and processing of the actual resource almost came to a halt.

Things may be looking up for the fluffy whites, as exports hit a 19 percent increase in the 2016/2017 season, which came to an end in August, the head of a cotton exporting council recently told Reuters.

While the recultivation of cotton seems to sound like good news, it may seem like half a solution. The local processing and manufacturing of the crops has been declining, since directly exporting the raw crops is faster and easier than actually turning the white gold into usable or wearable products.

For Sallam and Habib, there was a clear niche in re-nurturing Egypt’s white gold and restoring its pre-2011 glory while turning Egyptian cotton products into a signature, homegrown brand.

The feasibility test
To get a sense of how people would react to Egyptian-made apparel before opening Cotton Ball’s flagship store in Zamalek, Sallam would go from house to house with a suitcase full of t-shirts for sale.

“At the time, we had several cuts for several body types. We created four cuts for women and three cuts for men and named them after different governorates of Egypt,” she recalls.

While everyone who saw it had positive feedback, Sallam says customers would turn hesitant once they found out the products were locally manufactured.

“If they go to Zara and look at the labels on shirts, they will realize that they are actually made in Egypt,” she says.

This was all happening prior to 2012, namely before the US dollar began strengthening exponentially against the Egyptian pound. The surge of the dollar over the past few years has driven more and more people to turn to local products.

Although some may argue that Cotton Ball is more expensive than other local alternatives, Habib explains that it is because they focus on the quality of each piece rather than the quantity of their collections.

“We are trying to create a good product, which is something to be proud of, because we are 100 percent local,” Sallam says.

All in the making
The couple oversee the entire manufacturing process, from cultivating the product, to sourcing, weaving, and dyeing materials. According to Sallam, this helps ensure quality and consistency.

Exporters and spinners say one of the biggest challenges they face is the supply, since the amount of cultivated Egyptian cotton is not that large.

Adding to that, Sallam and Habib say one of the main obstacles is that good quality crops are hard to access.

“People who think cotton in Egypt is easily accessible are at fault,” Habib explained. “It is a very old industry, and after the 1952 revolution, the government nationalized the entire cotton industry.”

Since the industry was dominated by just few people, Egyptian cotton became more of an exported commodity than a local product.

There is another misconception that cotton is a soft and luxurious fabric. What the couple has found, however, is that products manufactured strictly using cotton are more rough on the skin than people imagine.

“We have to educate the public. They need to understand that the textile industry in the last 10-20 years has produced blended materials not only because this is cheaper, but because it feels better on the skin,” Habib says.

At the time, they were selling 40 to 50 t-shirts a day under the name Egyptian Cotton Ball. Later on, they rebranded to Cotton Ball and began testing new blends of materials to determine the softest, most flattering fits.

“We do not say that our items are 100 percent cotton anymore because we have to be honest with people,” Habib added.

Recently, the Cotton Ball team began working with fashion consultancy agency Maison Pyramide to work on a marketing and growth strategy, locally and regionally.

“We realized that we could sell a lot on social media, but we needed to have the right type of content to attract the clients that would appreciate our clothes,” Sallam says.

The kickoff of the “Cause You’re Not Basic” campaign painted Cotton Ball’s collection in a different light, and helped to both upgrade the company’s image as well boost sales.

The bread and butter of B2B
Unlike daily sales, Cotton Ball’s business-to-business sales (B2B) did not require any marketing plans.

“We were not focusing on B2B at all until we applied at Endeavor Egypt in 2015, and realized that 40 percent of our sales were B2B, with zero marketing,” Habib said.

Endeavor Egypt is a global network that pairs growing companies, or scale-ups, with mentors and potential business partners around the world. They offer strategy, business model and growth scheme support and mentorship.

Through the selection process, Cotton Ball realized that B2B is its actual bread and butter. Cotton Ball’s reputation in the B2B line resonated well in the market. Within a short period of time, Habib says sizable contracts started flowing in.

Sallam and Habib’s most notable B2B project was with the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357, which came after a British nurse asked them to produce comfortable clothes for the patients.

“We tailored something that we already had to fulfill their basic needs, namely something that is homey and fun at the same time,” Sallam says.

The focus on B2B activity is helping Cotton Ball pursue expansion plans with the goal of having a presence in international department stores.

As the couple says: “We want to create a legacy for our kids, and that legacy is having an Egyptian brand present worldwide.”

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